I Am Love
Directed by Luda Guadagnino
The Grade: C+
It begins like The Godfather. A large, wealthy Italian family gathers for a celebration (a birthday in this case, rather than a wedding), and the family business becomes an important topic of conversation. Director Luda Guadagnino (working from a script he co-wrote with three others) uses the same strategy Francis Ford Coppola harnessed almost forty years earlier to quickly and fluidly introduce every member of a large family and where they stand in the hierarchy.
Tilda Swinton, in perhaps the best role of her career so far (she also co-produced) plays Emma, a beautiful Russian woman who completely recreated herself as an Italian when she married into the Recchis, a powerful and affluent Milanese family. Her husband, Tancredi, and their eldest son, Edoardo, have just been informed they will inherit control of their family’s textile business from Tancredi’s father. We also meet Elisabetta, daughter to Emma and Tancredi, and Antonio, a talented chef and friend to Edoardo. When Antonio later becomes a fixture of the Recchi household (he and Edoardo plan to open a restaurant together) his presence and cooking acumen awaken in Emma a desire to pursue more passion in her life—a challenge Emma is inspired to undertake when Elisabetta emerges as a lesbian. And, as these things so often do, this pursuit of passion results in an affair with Antonio.
The beautifully shot opening sequence is meant to portray the buried emptiness that hides in Emma’s soul, but what it really introduces us to is the emptiness of the movie. From the passing of the torch in the Recchi family that opens the film, and continuing until the final moment, none of the major events that change the characters seem to change them in ways that make sense—and some of those events make even less sense. When Emma begins her affair with Antonio, she seems to exude more passion for his cooking than for him. There is a lengthy and dramatic scene of Emma eating Antonio’s cooking for the first time, where she reacts to a plate of shrimp as though it were sex on a stick. (In an interview with Charlie Rose, Swinton said she and Guadagnino jokingly referred to this scene as “prawnography,” and that it was inspired by the way food was portrayed in the 2007 Pixar film Ratatouille.) Yet when it comes to making love for the first time, Emma and Antonio act as though they are performing a carefully plotted lab experiment; step one: unbutton blouse, step two: unzip pants, etc. We’re supposed to see the passionate core of Emma’s true being coming into its own, but how can we buy into that idea when Emma’s actions don’t really let us?
I Am Love has three things going for it: The cinematography, the score, and Tilda Swinton. Swinton, who has always been a good actress (she won an Oscar for 2007’s George Clooney-starring legal drama Michael Clayton), creates interest and sympathy even during sequences when the story seems to betray her character. And, as anyone who’s seen a trailer for the film can attest, it looks gorgeous. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (whose most notable previous credit would probably be 2003’s Swimming Pool) excels at finding the beauty and serenity in closely focused shots of ordinary things—flowers, bugs, food, architecture, water, etc. Even many of the shots of people in motion are framed in unique and aesthetically exciting ways, including a faux-chase sequence in San Remo that was clearly inspired by Hitchcock.
The score, by Pulitzer Prize winning composer John Adams, is an interesting matter, because it’s both fantastic, and fantastically out of place. There’s barely a moment when the score doesn’t call attention to itself, but is that really a good thing? In the film’s closing moments, the music crescendos with such bombastic pomp and circumstance that it felt like we were hearing the audio track to the wrong film. It was the sound of The Death Star being destroyed, and evil being vanquished from the galaxy. What it was most certainly not the sound of is the conclusion of a domestic drama. Too bad that’s what was on screen.
For most of I Am Love’s duration, Swinton’s daring performance and Le Saux’s exciting camera work manage to overcompensate for a poorly executed story. But a major event in the movie’s final act, which changes the status quo of the Recchi family in a way that just seems cheap and unfair, really leaves a sour after-taste to a movie that was only vaguely sweet to begin with. I Am Love feels like it’s supposed to be a film about the necessity of pursuing one’s passions, but it nearly turns into a cautionary tale on why not to.